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The Internet of Things: what kind of ‘things’ are we manufacturing?

Geschreven door Ben van Lier - 27 augustus 2013

Ben van Lier
In 1989, Langdon Winner [1] asked himself the question: “As we make things work, what kind of world are we making’’? This question has probably never been as topical than at a time where more and more objects are developed, manufactured and maintained which are or will be connected to the Internet. The development to physical objects connected in networks that exchange and share information within these networks, has far-reaching consequences for the development, manufacture and maintenance of these objects.

Rand Europe [2] was commissioned by the European Commission to carry out a study into the question of how the development of the ‘Internet of Things’ can be stimulated within the European Union. The results of this study were recently published. In the report, Rand Europe states that the ‘Internet of Things’ is a logical continuation in the development of the already existing Internet. In this next step, more and more physical objects are connected to the Internet. According to Rand Europe, by connecting physical objects to the Internet, the following was developed: “a pervasive and self-organising network of connected, identifiable and addressable physical objects, enabling application development in and across key vertical sectors through the use of embedded chips”. In the opinion of Rand Europe, the Internet of Things is currently developing at an amazing speed and this rapid development will draw into question existing business models, market classifications, government policy and other social principles.

European regulations

By interconnecting physical objects in networks to an Internet of Things, not only functionalities of individual physical objects are strengthened and expanded, but new functionalities and capabilities are created at the same time, which will influence the entire process of development, manufacturing and maintenance of these physical objects. According to Rand Europe, within the next 10 to 15 years, the development of the Internet of Things will not only form an important part of the European digital economy, but its development now is certainly not yet aligned with the European policy or European regulations. The latter is partly caused because the development of the Internet of Things is happening largely beyond the reach of both European governments and the European industry.

Industry 4.0

The changes identified by Rand Europe in the development, manufacture and maintenance of objects is also known as Industrie 4.0 [3] in Germany . Industrie 4.0 is the fourth stage of the industrial revolution in which the effects of the Internet of Things and Services penetrate to the existing industry and thus to the development, manufacture and maintenance of physical objects. According to McKinsey [4], influencing the existing industry will lead to new forms of organising and organisations which can be characterized as: “highly agile, networked enterprises that use information and analytics as skillfully as they employ talent and machinery, deliver products and services to diverse global markets in advanced economics, manufacturing will continue to drive innovation, exports, and productivity growth”.


This new stage of the industrial revolution will form a challenge to all businesses and organizations to organize and produce themselves in a whole new way in networks around the world. To organize and implement this global production, businesses and organizations will have to work together in global networks that allow them to develop, manufacture and maintain these new objects for increasingly differentiated customer groups. To operate successfully in these global networks, businesses and organizations will more than ever need detailed knowledge of the world around them. Only then can they determine competitive strategies in these global networks and plan activities.

Interoperability frameworks

In a positioning paper recently published in the UK, compiled by the IoT Special Interest Group [5], the possibility of being able to share and exchange information between actors (physical objects, organisations, etc) in these global networks is seen as the biggest challenge. The problem of interoperability of information within sectors is already big, but it is even more complex when information has to be shared and exchanged across sector boundaries. According to the Special Interest Group, the problem of being able to share and exchange information within and between sectors is too often approached from a standardization point of view. However, suitable standards are already available and in development, and constantly influencing this ongoing process of standardization and new standards is not considered practical. The Special Interest Group therefore notes that the challenge of being able to share and exchange information in order to develop, manufacture and maintain physical objects in global networks, requires a different approach. The new approach is then based on the development and shaping of international interoperability frameworks that simultaneously serve as design guidelines and best practices within the evolving global network for manufacturing and maintaining physical objects.

It’s Europe’s turn

The evolution to an Internet of Things is an inevitable development that may set in motion many new economic developments. The development, manufacture and maintenance of networked physical objects will have profound implications for the process of development, manufacture and maintenance of industrial products. As McKinsey rightly notes, this also makes it necessary that European governments transform their traditional vision of industrial production as a source of mass employment to an industrial production as “critical driver of innovation, productivity and competitiveness”. European governments play a crucial role in this technological and social transformation, in particular in terms of the development and design of education and research that can lead to sufficient and qualified staff to make this transformation possible and to keep European industries globally competitive. Despite the uncertainty that every transformation process entails, close European cooperation between government and industry may provide answers to Langdon’s question at the beginning: “As we make things work, what kind of world are we making?’’

  • [1] Winner L. (1989) The whale and the reactor. A search for limits in an age of high technology. The Chicago press. Chicago. ISBN-10: 0226902110
  • [2] Rand Europe (2012) Europe’s policy options for a dynamic and trustworthy development of the Internet of Things
  • [3] Lier van B. (2013) Spimes, Cyber physical Systems and Industrie 4.0 http://bit.ly/1eZEr7w
  • [4] McKinsey Global Institute. Manufacturing the future: The next era of global growth and innovation. November 2012
  • [5] Internet of Things and machine to machine Communications (M2M): Challenges and opportunities – final positioning paper – May 2013. IoT Special Interest group. Technology Strategy Board

Ben van Lier works at Centric as an account director and, in that function, is involved in research and analysis of developments in the areas of overlap between organisation and technology within the various market segments.

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